West African winter: why sanctions won’t work

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Today, apart from vegetables, nothing is affordable on the market. No onions or oil, even less meat.– Fane Tenin Berthe, resident of Bamako.

On January 14, in the markets of Bamako, Mali, the cost of 50 kilograms of sugar was 31,500 Central African CFA francs (XAF), an increase of 18% compared to the previous day. On the same markets, an onion sold for 12,000 XAF, an increase of 20% since the day before. And it’s not just food prices that are rising; even a metric ton of cement now costs XAF 130,000, 45% more than a day before.

When Colonel Assimi Goïta took over the Malian presidency early last year, his administration promised that a return to democracy would be swift. In the early days of 2022, however, his announcement that elections would not be held for another five years caused shock and condemnation around the world. A bloc of Mali’s neighbours, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), quickly imposed harsh sanctions in retaliation. ECOWAS has frozen Mali’s cross-border assets, halted non-essential trade, and closed Mali’s borders with other member states, causing massive price hikes on all imported goods. Given the circumstances, Mali’s leadership was expected to retreat, but to ECOWAS’ surprise, they did not. Instead, just days after the sanctions were announced, thousands of Malians took to the streets of Bamako in support of Goïta and his new government. So what did ECOWAS do wrong?

Three West African nations have fallen to military juntas in the past 18 months, and after Goïta’s latest incursion in January, ECOWAS members felt action was needed. UN members have promised to stand firm with ECOWAS and even though official support for these sanctions has not been voted by the Security Council – due to vetoes by Russia and China – the symbolism of the union of the West and ECOWAS against Goïta was clear. However, as is often the case in the history of Western policy in West Africa, these proposed sanctions show a deep misunderstanding of those on whom they are imposed. First, the West fails to recognize the crushing effect that sanctions have on the everyday Malian. Second, it ignores the ineffective impact of these policies on restricting Mali’s international trade. But perhaps more importantly, these sanctions reflect a mindset deeply disconnected from what Malian citizens want.

“Mali will have to deal with a host of internal problems before a return to democracy is possible, but the policies of the UN and ECOWAS will be essential in determining whether the state can make this transition or fall back into a permanent despotism”.

Mali is landlocked. Around 70 percent of the country’s food comes from imports, economic growth is increasingly linked to the construction sector and one in three Malians depends on humanitarian aid. Various Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups continue to plague the north, and southern population centers have seen recent spikes in Covid-19 in a region where extreme poverty rates have risen by almost 3% since last year.

ECOWAS sanctions included clear exceptions for food, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and electricity. However, mutual border closures have all but halted trade between Mali and its most active ECOWAS trading partners, Senegal and Ivory Coast, driving up the prices of everything from meat to oil. Traders hoping to make a quick profit are sourcing inventory from Malian markets as ordinary people are able to buy less and less. The closure of ECOWAS borders has affected humanitarian assistance as border tensions make non-governmental organizations (NGOs) increasingly unable and unwilling to take the risk of entering Mali. It’s the mother who can only afford vegetables for her family, the day laborer who no longer has a project to work on, and the nomadic tribesman who faces a more direct terrorist threat. today than in recent memory that faces the weight of these sanctions. ECOWAS offers no relief.

The construction industry, hard hit by the shortage of non-essential concrete, has suffered greatly, hampering growth and infrastructure development. If Mali were to face this crisis alone, perhaps the time spent under the effective blockade could force the junta to resign or induce a failed state. But despite the crippling effects of these sanctions, recent coups in Guinea and Burkina Faso have created a buffer of allies in the region. In a show of solidarity, Guinea’s current military junta, sanctioned by ECOWAS since September, has offered Mali the use of its port capital Conakry, providing a crucial link to international trade. From there, Mali began to resume trade with its main non-ECOWAS trading partners, China, France and Austria, unabated.

Most important is what the sanctions reveal about ECOWAS and its inability to deal with the recent shift in Malian public opinion on the role of democracy. Eleven years ago, unrest in Tunisia spilled over into the Arab world, bringing to an abrupt end decades of individual dictatorships and autocracies. Few would have guessed, however, that within five years, nearly every country involved in the Arab Spring would begin to retreat to new forms of autocracy.

Democratically elected Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi has been imprisoned and the crackdown on media, activists and the opposition has been swift. Despite the brutality, former armed forces chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the 2014 elections in a landslide, signaling an embrace of populism and strongman rule that the West later dubbed ” the Arabian winter. Western ears hear the word ‘junta’ and see chaos, but perhaps we should look at the statistic no liberal Westerner wants to see: the percentage of Egyptians who say a stable government without full democracy is preferable to a democracy with the risk of political instability. The year Egypt fell to its junta, that number exceeded 50%.

The Arabian winter has reached West Africa. For Mali, instability comes from all sides. Prior to the 2020 Malian coup, which would eventually lead to Goïta’s administration, President Ibrahim Keita’s favor had fallen to a dismal 26.5%. A reign of rampant poverty, food insecurity, political repression, incompetence and Covid-19 outbreaks has been punctuated by horrific stories of ethnic cleansing by armed groups from the North. Fatima Maiga, founder of an NGO fighting for women’s rights in Mali, pointed out that women and girls in Mali have long been deprived of “access to schools, health centers, markets and fields and subjected sexual violence, including gang rape and sexual slavery”. , with little access to justice. This does not mean that an armed coup is preferable to democracy, only that, as the current president, Colonel Goïta, has said, “Mali is in a situation of socio-political crisis. There is no more room for error. »

In this context, the outpouring of support for the transitional government following the recent ECOWAS sanctions is more than understandable. The weekly Mali Horizon in Bamako declared that Mali must “unite or perish”, and another news site, Malikile, called for a “sacred union” with the administration of Goïta to defend the country. Whether ECOWAS will listen or not, Keita had lost his people’s mandate long before the recent coup. Now, it remains to be seen whether Keita’s incompetence has swung Malian public opinion irreversibly against democracy, but as Malian schoolteacher Bouba Touré put it: “What good are elections if they can’t be organized in two-thirds of the country?

Although ECOWAS continues to bungle the response in Mali, at least for now, it seems to have learned the lesson. In response to the January 23 coup in Burkina Faso, ECOWAS members took a different path. Instead of harsh sanctions, they sent two delegations to open avenues of dialogue with the deposed president and the new military government. It’s far from ideal, but it’s a step toward understanding the impetus behind these coups and finding a framework to support the people who experience them. Mali will have to contend with a host of internal issues before a return to democracy is possible, but UN and ECOWAS policies will be key in determining whether the state can make this transition or fall back into despotism. permanent. And the next time sanctions are suggested for a country facing as much instability as Mali, perhaps the international community will think twice.

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